Portland students sat down with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra at Faubion K-8 in Northeast Portland Monday to discuss youth mental health. Portland Public Schools hosted Becerra, Gov. Tina Kotek and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson for an hourlong conversation that included students, as well as representatives from mental health nonprofit Lines for Life, delegates from a tribal youth program and University of Oregon officials.
Near the beginning of the conversation, Kotek pointed out the connection between signs of academic success — test scores, attendance — and mental health.
“It’s difficult to take a test or show up every day when you’re having a hard time,” Kotek said.
Education and behavioral health are two of Kotek’s priorities in her first term as governor. Kotek said part of fulfilling those two objectives means having a workforce to support students and keep them in school.
“Things are going to be hard when you’re young, but how do we anticipate that and help you before things get worse,” Kotek said.
While students and adults agree that youth mental health is a concern, students at the meeting said they aren’t always aware of resources or how to access them. Students agreed it’s important to create a pipeline of professionals to give them the support they need.
“For a lot of students, they don’t necessarily know what’s out there for them,” said Cleveland High School senior and PPS school board student representative Byronie McMahon, mentioning nonprofits aimed at helping specific student populations.
“I think there’s just a lack of communication between students and those programs.”
Another student, Faubion eighth grader Jaiyana Jones, talked about other barriers — like stigma in seeking help or hesitancy to open up to an adult about problems.
“Some people don’t feel comfortable coming to their counselors or just talking to people about their problems in the first place,” Jones said. “So I feel like substance abuse has been a very big thing — that’s what people go to when they feel like they can get something quick to make them feel better.”
Jones cited coming to school after COVID distance learning and social media as negatively affecting student mental health. McMahon mentioned burnout in academics, family problems, substance abuse and gun violence as other things students might be dealing with.
Representing the Tribal Youth Delegate program, Jeidah DeZurny said there’s sometimes a “cultural disconnect” in mental health services provided and a lack of funding for culturally specific help.
“Our American Indian students are anxious, and they don’t have people that look like them that they feel safe to talk to,” DeZurny said.
Jones, a Black student, said having support staff who reflect the students they serve “builds a comfort.”
Becerra also heard from volunteers from the Oregon YouthLine, a teen crisis hotline. Volunteers talked about what they’ve heard from young people who have called the hotline. They said callers didn’t feel like they had the support they needed or a trusted adult they could talk to.
“More accommodations should be made in schools, and mental health should be more prioritized,” said volunteer Tanvi Vemulapalli.
“Teens should have more resources that they know they can reach out to. I’ve heard so many contacts say they don’t have anyone in their life they can talk to.”
Secretary Becerra mentioned his department’s recent launch of 988, the country’s suicide prevention hotline, and stressed the need for more funding from states to keep the program going. He also asked roundtable participants for suggestions about hiring staff to build more culturally responsive services. He cited Washington’s Native and Strong Lifeline, a hotline dedicated to supporting American Indian and Alaska Native people, as an opportunity to reach specific communities.
Kotek said one of her main priorities is passing her budget, which includes funding to support the mental health workforce as well as support for efforts like 988.
One Portland-based initiative to better prioritize youth mental health will soon be housed across the street from Faubion at the University of Oregon’s Ballmer Institute.
The program is dedicated to building a new behavioral health workforce. PPS will partner with the university to build more mental health support in Portland schools, especially Faubion.
Ana Hernandez, a Ph.D. student in UO’s clinical psychology program, works for the Ballmer Institute.
“With the Ballmer Institute in particular, that’s a big piece of what we’re talking about ... getting these providers into schools or other types of community settings,” Hernandez said. “Thinking about promotion and prevention and really thinking about how we can support youth before we start seeing difficulties.”
At the national level, Becerra said providing scholarships and other incentives to states to increase the number of mental health professionals is a priority at HHS.
“What we’ll do, we’ll pay for your graduate education, then you gotta commit to four or five years of service in an area of the country that’s underserved for mental health,” Becerra said. “That way you come out without debt, but we come out with a qualified professional helping people.”
Becerra and Kotek also talked about improving connections between health care and education systems at the local, state and national levels to better meet the mental health needs of students.
“Our job is to make sure the structures are there to be supportive, like the YouthLine,” Kotek said.
If you are concerned that you or someone else is at risk for suicide dial the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.